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Neutrality as a Shield From Violence

June 9, 2021

To the Editor:

 “Lebanon First:” On the Politics of Neutrality on a Moving Train” (May 21). Neutrality is a desire to shield Lebanon from further instability and political violence. The two and a half decades of French Mandatory rule are unrelated to that stance.

That Lebanon has been a battlefield for regional war for most of its independent history shows the need to disassociate, but not to ignore or — as Bitar notes — “endorse … the settler-colonial project in Palestine.” Any concerned citizen should stand for Palestinian political dignity and economic rights, and that begins with addressing how Lebanon treats its own Palestinian refugees. Yet the violent consequences of military involvement in the Palestinian cause are within living memory, and the PLO’s battles in Lebanon against Israeli forces in the early 1970s quickly contributed to ungovernability and breakdown. Bitar’s perspective that “neutrality is oriented toward submission” does little to differentiate extremist stances of isolation and sectarianism from citizens demanding a proactive policy of disassociation.

The author further claims that “neutrality … is another weapon brandished by our former colonizers … crushing our resistance.” The “weapon” is, in fact, pointed in the other direction. The 2012 Baabda Declaration of disassociation from the Syrian war was signed by Hezbollah, yet never implemented. Hezbollah denied the “rational national stance” that Bitar dismisses, further contributing to Lebanon’s political paralysis-turned-collapse.

On the question of sovereignty. Disassociation does not imply, in any way, violence against refugees. That accusation aside, if the starting point to sovereignty begins with “imagined nation-state borders” then the conversation becomes one built on Marxist economics and political anarchy rather than Lebanon’s reality. Whether or not Lebanon is a “colonial project built on a series of national myths,” a century has passed where the foundation — flawed and in desperate need of reform — formed our borders. And this may be the crux of the issue, at least in terms of how to define and even describe sovereignty when a state lacks control over its decision-making capabilities, let alone its sensitive sites.

The author also links state authority to “sever[ing] … organic ties with people across Greater Syria.” Yet a Greater regional politics rid of tyranny, zealotry and paramilitary proxy would usher in those natural ties that once defined our economics and trade. A reversal — or revision — of that history will not. The author’s subsequent tying of sovereignty to “pav[ing] the way for Zionism … further succumb[ing] … any possibility of political and economic sovereignty as a people” exposes more false associations of state authority to Jewish nationalism and colonialism, and false connotations of Lebanese independence and Zionism.

The disagreement is perhaps best summed up by the following. On one side, a state under attack, hijacked by proxy and unable to deliver political agency and destiny. The other, a state born in error, its flaws permanent unless unraveled to its core and dismantled. At hand is either a yearning for monopoly of violence through a sole legitimate army and monopoly of power through state institutions, or a deriding of both through anarchic politics and economics. We can either choose to see 1970-1975 as the years that led to our current fate, or look back to 1920, where founding myth and European intrusion turned to our modern curse.

Ronnie Chatah
Host of The Beirut Banyan podcast

The writer is the son of assassinated former minister Mohamad Chatah.